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Lone researcher's mission: Make otters in Borneo better known
Published on: Sunday, June 25, 2017

ADORABLE and cute, otters are often overlooked when it comes to species conservation, especially in Sabah, due to the lack of scientific study, with only several papers on this carnivorous mammal in the State since the 80's.

Otters are found on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. The anatomy of an otter is designed to allow it to get around well both on land and in the water.

In Borneo, particularly Sabah, there are four known otter species: Smooth-coated Otter, Small-clawed Otter, Hairy-nosed Otter and Eurasian Otter. The Hairy-nosed Otter and the Eurasian Otter are thought to be extinct in Borneo, but recently, there have been sightings of the two species.

In mid-2010 there was a buzz worldwide when the hairy-nosed otter was rediscovered in Borneo – at the Deramakot Forest Reserve in Sabah. The last confirmed record of the hairy-nosed otter in the State was more than 100 years ago, and it has not been seen in Borneo since one was killed by a car in 1997.

According to a report in the British Broadcasting Corporation, experts only realised they had recorded a hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana) after examining photos of three different otter species.

One otter species caught on camera was the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata), while another was the Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus).

But a close examination of one photograph revealed it had recorded a hairy-nosed otter, which has a flatter, longer head, a white throat and darker fur than its two relatives.

Otters can be found in the Lower Kinabatangan and several other areas in Sabah.

But soon, people in Sabah and the rest of the world would get to know more about the otters in Borneo, thanks to the wonderful work of Leona Wai.

It was during her final year, doing a bachelor's degree in Conservation Biology at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) that she was introduced to Benoit Goossens, and later decided to pursue her Masters with Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC).

"Wildlife and nature had been my passion since I was young and I have fallen in love with otters since I first saw them in a zoo," said Penampang-born Leona. "Their unique behaviour, fierce-yet-adorable appearance was what attracted me most.

"When Goossens and DGFC provided me the opportunity to do research on otters, I was so thrilled and knew straight away that I could not turn down this offer and here was my chance to do something for the otters.

The rest, as they say, is history."

Leona said it is important to confirm what species are in Borneo so scientists can establish a conservation management plan for them.

Otters, according to Leona, are very fragile and their survival depends on the quality of their environment.

Hence, by monitoring the health of the ecosystem, especially water ecosystem, people like Leona can monitor the otter population in that particular area.

"Moreover, they control the population of the prey that they prey on, which will then balance the ecosystem.

For example, in the Kinabatangan flood plains, otters are seen to consume an invasive fish species, the Amazon Sailfin Catfish.

"Otters also play an important role in the ecotourism industry. Their adorable appearance and playfulness make them natural crowd-pullers.

"They are unique because they will usually be with their mate until the end of their life.

They are also very nurturing to their young and will take care of them until they are adults and decide to leave the group to mate.

"They will usually defend their territory by fighting with other groups who want to take over their area.

Otters being a very territorial species, will mark their territory using their spraint (faeces and pee), signalling to other groups that the area is occupied by them."

Otters are very social animals and usually hunt in groups. They hunt fish by forming a circle and forcing the fish to jump into the centre. This makes it easier for them to catch the fish. They will protect and help one another.

Leona admits that while the Otters are small and not as famous as those megafauna, they play many important role in the ecosystem.

"Being able to actually contribute something in conservation in my own State, is such a pleasure for me and I don't think I will stop doing my work in conservation ever," she said.

Local people, especially the younger generations, need to be more aware and appreciate the beauty of nature in their own backyard and must start to take actions in protecting the environment before it is too late.

"I started my fieldwork in DGFC in February 2016 and finished in March a year later. I am currently writing my thesis and hope to finish writing by the end of this year. My Masters project which entitled, the Ecology of Otters in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS), has three main aims:

- determine the distribution and presence of otter in different habitat type across LKWS using boat survey; - investigate the activity pattern of otter using camera trapping; and

- identify human-otter conflict and villager's perceptions towards otter by interviewing the local communities.

"My whole fieldwork period has been nothing but excitement and fun. Whole year in the jungle has taught me many things and every day I discover something new, the jungle never fails to surprise me."

Having attended the Otter International Congress in Singapore in July 2016 and meeting many experts from all over the world and hearing their experiences had broadened her view to a whole new perspective.

She is now a member of the IUCN Otter Specialist Group (OSG).

DGFC and the rest of the world should be getting to know more about otters in Borneo thanks to Leona, and her team. And wait for the exciting episode featuring Bertie and Leona in the Borneo Jungle Series that will be aired on Monday.

As for Leona, she wishes to pursue a PhD on otters in near future, to continue her research on otters on a bigger scale, and possibly in the whole Borneo.

Borneo Jungle Diaries is produced by SZtv and follows environmental photojournalist, Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski as he investigates life behind-the-scenes at the Danau Girang Field Centre.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

What's more, viewers are encouraged to take part in the competition that is being held;

All you have to do is answer five questions from the episode correctly each week to win a 4-day / 3-night stay the Danau Girang Field Centre. There will also be a grand prize at the end of the 10-series Borneo Jungle Diaries for those who get all questions correct across all quizzes.

For more information, check out Borneo Jungle Diaries on SZtv.

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